tv Mosaic World News LINKTV November 20, 2012 7:30pm-8:00pm PST
hello, i'm annette insdorf. i'm chair of the film division at columbia university's school of the arts and i'll be moderating a discussion on hollywood style and the contemporary american cinema. our panel has four outstanding writer-directors. to my immediate right is paul schrader. his credits as writer-director include american gigolo, cat people, mishima. as a screenwriter for other directors he's responsible for the script of obsession for brian depalma mosquito coast for peter weir and for martin scorsese, taxi driver, raging bull and the last temptation of christ. to his right is joan micklin silver
whose credits include hester street between the lines chilly scenes of winter and crossing delancey. to my immediate left is james toback. his credits include the gambler and bugsy, for which he received an academy award nomination for screenplay. and in terms of directing his credits include love and money, exposed and the pick-up artist. to his left is whit stillman whose first feature, metropolitan earned the best first film award from the new york critics circle and an academy award nomination for best screenplay. and his most recent film is barcelona. i happen to have been born in france and i've spent some time in europe. i've noticed that the french have a term for hollywood movies, "le happy end"-- the happy ending that provides that wonderful narrative closure-- in love stories, the kiss that must always precede the end.
today we'll be looking at the meaning of hollywood style for artists. we should start out by defining our terms and making sure that we all understand the same basic things about what we're calling "hollywood style." if i can start with paul schrader how would you define this term and to what extent has this hollywood style shaped you? the "hollywood style" means two things: one, it means the best that money can buy. you buy the best talent in the world-- the best books and writers. you bring them to hollywood and you spare no expense. that's the real fundamental hollywood principle. and then i think, aesthetically a second thing is the assumption of the anonymous observer. that is, in a classic hollywood movie if two people are in a room the cameraman and the director try to pretend
that there are only two people in the room that these are the only two people who are talking and that you have entered into that space and are part of their conversation. and so those directors today who still work in the hollywood style have those two things: they throw a lot of money at the film and they also pretend they're not there. and in that case you can still talk about people like sydney pollack or alan pakula even barry levinson as working in that classic hollywood style. james? toback: i actually was thinking i find that an interesting core for a defition. i was thinking of a couple of aspects of, um, distinction between the hollywood style and to set it against something the personal style. the hollywood film is always grounded in narrative, always grounded in story first where the story exists and the characters exist to serve the story to move it along
whereas in a certain kind of personal filmmaking that is outside that hollywood style, the story is a by-product of the characters and the characters are the reason... or character at the center of the movie is the reason for making that movie. the hollywood style says "tell me what the story is..." story is becoming outmoded in the hollywood style. "tell me what the gimmick is, tell me what the technology is or tell me the angle." but not, "tell me who this person is." i actually do find that a useful way of defining the notion of hollywood. now, joan, for you, has this hollywood style shaped your work? have you been moving away from it consciously or not? i don't see that one could make films or even live your life without being affected by hollywood style. it's so much a part of what we all grew up on what we all see what we all talk about, think about and it's almost a common language
amongst, certainly people in america. i guess what i'm curious about is i want to ask james why do you think that executives are uncomfortable with more personal things and they prefer things that seem to be referential to other films-- because they'll do better? because they simply fit into something they've already done, so they feel...? despite presenting themselves as risk takers most executives in hollywood are quite the contrary. they are people allergic to risk. whit, you haven't had that much experience in hollywood itself but to what extent have you used it as a model to define yourself if necessarily against or next to...? i really see it more in story terms and script terms. when i was reading books, trying to figure out how to write my first screenplay there's a huge resistance to the dogmatism and this sort of particularity of the books but actually the more i watch and the more i work in films
i think that these books have a lot of truth for the kind of film they want to make. so i think that more and more this kind of formulaic screenwriting is setting the contemporary hollywood style for most films. a lot of films don't adhere to them and normally they aren't that successful. the ones people imitate follow the formula. now maybe you can throw in something here if you share that. insdorf: well, i do, although one can't generalize too much. in other words, i think certain students choose for example, n.y.u. or columbia as opposed to u.s.c. or u.c.l.a. precisely because there is the illusion of a greater freedom in other words, of personal style as opposed to merely hollywood style. u.c.l.a. and u.s.c., as film schools feed more directly into the hollywood pipeline and a lot of our students want to make the kinds of film, frankly that you people here at this panel make.
they're more inspired, i think by jim jarmusch or martin scorsese or jane campion than they are by, well... you know, george lucas or steven spielberg. schrader: my theory is that the reason orson welles scared hollywood to death is because he inserted his personality in the most... elephantine, multi-talented way into cinema and it was just terrifying to see that much personality. the directors who had a style worked in certain channels-- the hitchcock style, the sturges style the ford style, the lubitsch style. there was a way they did it but they were working in the corporate conglomerate way. uh, orson welles was saying, "screw all of this. i'm going to reinvent movies." and, well, they got rid of him. and then, you know, with the nouvelle vague and then with bertolucci finally... this has now taken root in hollywood which is why hollywood is so anxious
and confused at the moment because they know they have to give money to spike lee and to quentin tarantino and they don't like that fact. eventually they can co-opt them, hopefully. or make money off of them and hold their nose while they do it. uh, now the question i'm trying to ask is are these guys really mavericks or has hollywood style... is there no more hollywood style? or is perhaps the very notion of hollywood style fluid enough, elastic enough to be able to incorporate some of... that's what i think's happened. the umbrella's getting wider and i think hollywood is ready to move a bit outside its realm. i don't really agree that executives hold their nose because these are younger guys. they're sort of hip or fancy themselves sort of hip and they like to have dinner with quentin tarantino.
if they're going to bend and make movies that do 40 or 50 million then let's make them part of the party. i think what has no place at all in hollywood is a movie that's going to cost $3 million and maybe do ten. that is not of interest to anybody. let me bring in whit stillman here. even a film like barcelona which is a wonderful example of independent personal filmmaking-- it certainly wasn't shot in hollywood-- and yet castle rock is behind the film and castle rock, by its entity is a sort of independent but it's connected to hollywood. it's columbia money, if i understand. so, you know, how do you see this? do you see that these are two totally different worlds in other words, the independent personal style or is it, in fact, an intersecting or overlapping world for you? i think that we're dominated by industrial concerns. so we're talking about our experiences and focusing on the business side. and i, to contradict you, since i just did the film...
they say they're interested in that kind of film. i think the real focus is the story elements. there is an american world view which is part of hollywood so we're talking about such a big subject. there's the story aspect, but, um... i was in, um... in russia ten years ago and i went to see a lot of films there. they all seemed to be war movies-- world war ii movies with love stories intertwined and you'd be watching a very nice movie and then suddenly there'd be a tacked on ending that would seem really sort of opportunistic sort of corny music, a lot of shoot-'em-up and the difference with an american film was that in the russian movie all the heroes died. all the people you've followed the whole movie died. then there was noise and we thought it was chuckling because it was so ridiculous-- this nice movie with a ridiculous ending and they weren't chuckling or laughing, they were crying.
and it's going back to the old days of silent films when they'd make the russian ending-- which was a sad ending and the american ending, which would be the happy ending. and if we're talking about the hollywood style "le happy end" is part of it. both joan, for example, and whit and actually perhaps, to some extent, all of you have created films with a collective protagonist rather than your basic hero or heroine. i'm thinking, to what extent is a film that does not have a clearly defined hero, heroine and maybe even plot line... can that film still be under the umbrella of the hollywood style? can robert altman be, you know put under that umbrella? that's an interesting question because an element integral to the hollywood style is the featuring of a star or stars and if you don't have a star or stars you're outside that style. and if you do, there are certain expectations
that that star needs to fill-- expectations of glamour, of personality of even moral conduct because, in fact, when a star doesn't behave within a certain realm of acceptable codes he ceases to be a star and the film ceases to have the hollywood style. schrader: let's bring this down to something technical because i think that if you can talk about it technically maybe you can make it understandable. so just some plain film literacy: like if we are in a scene here there's a certain number of dictated shots. there'll be an establishing shot taken from some distance that will show the room such as it is. there'll be a tighter master angle which will show the group. there will be singles of us and there will be some overs then there may be inserts of various items. now, this is traditional hollywood style.
this is how you shoot a scene. now, an independent filmmaker may start to change those rules. he may say... "i don't like all of that. "i'm going to do something interesting. "i'm going to be on her face. "i'm going to go up to whit. "all the while joan's going to be talking "and i'm never going to shoot joan. "i won't have her. "i'm stuck in the editing room there's nothing they can do about it." this is the antithesis of hollywood style. this is why they hate filmmakers who do these kinds of things because it hurts their ability in post-production to bring the film back to something normal. hollywood style, in many ways can be taken down to a technical level and it is in the studio's interest to have as much film in the editing room as possible. stillman: traditional hollywood saw the good side of it was fast cutting, using a lot of coverage to do exactly what you wanted and to have these range of shots
so you could play it for the best way so you could go all over the shoulders in the scene. you didn't have to go master over-the-shoulder singles. you could play it any which way in the editing room and you had that freedom and you had that time. so that's the good side of potentially... but they weren't... the directors were not editing the movies so this was a studio decision. the studio decided what to make who would write it who would direct, who would edit and who would score it. therefore, the editing decision was right under the chain of command of the studio not under the director's chain of command. so when the director did a lot of coverage he didn't give himself a lot of options. he gave the studio a lot of options. toback: which is what ford never did. if we're to go further with whit's assessment that we should look upon what has been extraordinarily good and influential about the hollywood style which leads to the question of
how do you account for the fact that it has such international appeal? why is it-- aside from economic issues of distribution-- that it's only american films that one sees in every country in the world? toback: you can't say "aside from." that is absolutely fundamental to it and without the money and without the distribution it wouldn't have it. my feeling is that there never was an american cinema. there was an italian cinema a french cinema, a russian cinema. they barely exist anymore. american cinema began as an international cinema. russian emigres displaced jews in hollywood bringing over people from germany and switzerland and all around the world marketing these silent movies for the world. they didn't even have a language problem. they were pumping them into every territory imaginable. they always saw themselves as international cinema. they never saw themselves as a national cinema. today, when you have a meeting in hollywood
the international market will come up. if you say "nick nolte" they say, "nick's numbers are good in the u.s., but they're weak foreign." it's always part of the conversation. and because we never had a national cinema we never thought in national terms that way. and we managed to use all that huge american merchandising and power and confidence to sell this to the world. and now, when any filmmaker becomes successful and wants to make international movies he comes to los angeles. so it doesn't really matter whether it's konchalavsky or peter weir or bertolucci... or victor babencko. or luis llosa, the new peruvian filmmaker who did the new sylvester stallone... the specialist. specialist movie. he now is an american director because he came to hollywood and did a sylvester stallone movie.
so if you want to make an international movie you come to hollywood. he is no longer peruvian or american. he's hollywood. insdorf: there is a reason that, for example, the hollywood style in the various ways that we've been chipping at the notion... there's a reason that it's had such an enduring appeal such a geographically vast appeal and it has something to do with storytelling. i mean, certainly with narrative closure... it's also inherently paternal. it basically says, we know best. we know how to make people look beautiful. we know how to tell a story. we're going to give it to you and you are going to watch it. we're in control. which is what you say to a six-year-old before he goes to sleep. a lot of movies put us on the knee of the filmmakers and say, "once upon a time..." and if you're good and if you listen carefully to the story not only will everything turn out well but you will be able to take the story with you to sleep. there is part of that.
but haven't we gotten a little more sophisticated? i know you have made films where you've taken the traditional storytelling modes and yet, you've stretched and tweaked and sort of shaped it to a personal as opposed to merely a hollywood style. i think i want to get a sense of is this not going to be more open to some of the other filmmakers that are following us? schrader: it's going to be open in the same way pandora's box is open. ( chuckling ) i mean, i think it's scary. i mean, we haven't talked about pulp fiction which i think is, to me one of the scariest movies i have seen. it's scary because it's really very, very good. and i come from a generation which is sort of based on the existentialist hero who was born of cynicism and traces roots through dostoyevsky and sartre. what quentin tarantino basically said is
he is as relevant as the edwardian hero or the victorian hero. the caring existentialist hero is really over in terms of pop sensibility. what we have now is an ironic hero. david letterman has replaced johnny carson. everything has quote marks around it. nothing really matters. everything's a wink and a jab. and the spookiest thing to me about watching pulp fiction is that i could, you know, um... i felt deeply irrelevant you know what i mean? and i didn't feel irrelevant because i had been cheated. i felt irrelevant because it was good. if it had been bad, i wouldn't have been threatened. but david letterman's sensibility doesn't even scratch the dementia of pulp fiction. it's much more well-behaved than that and it won't offend the big mall mainstream the way pulp fiction will still offend a large chunk of the american mainstream audience.
paul, you invoke pulp fiction but this has also been the year of forrest gump. i think it's very difficult to just say here, pulp fiction renders me meaningless and the traditional audience meaningless when, in fact, a film like forrest gump with extraordinarily old-fashioned, traditional... i mean, i think it may be the hollywood style in a rather quintessential way. that film does extraordinary business and has repeat viewers. and it is really very scary because it capitalizes the whole hollywood mentality which is, um... only the naive survive, you know that if you're dumb enough, everything will work out. ( laughs ) that's a reassuring thought. yeah. apparently, it was a very cheery thought to a lot of people. still is, yes. absolutely. i mean, you know and immediately
you can make an argument as gump as being an ironic hero because he is a "hero." he's like a hero with quote marks around him because he doesn't do anything. so maybe gump and john travolta are not that far apart. toback: except that one is dangerous and off center and the other one isn't. that's the deceptive thing. i don't think travolta is dangerous. he has big quote marks around him. he'll say, "i kill people, but they don't really die "because i don't really exist. "i don't really have real feelings. "i'm a synthetic, ironic person. "therefore, when i kill people it's a synthetic, ironic act, and don't worry about it." well, that's the non-technological version of what goes on in these high-tech movies where the actions are, in fact, existential. they're violent, they're life-and-death intensity but you don't feel it at all. you don't feel the reality of it at all. in many ways
all that quentin has done is taken the die hard mentality and put it into an art house format. so maybe there isn't that much difference between die hard and gump and pulp fiction. and if that is true then the whole notion of the protagonist-- i won't even call him a hero anymore-- is moving down a very interesting road. insdorf: hollywood itself is as always, redefining what its essence is. academy awards are always a good indication of this and i guess if you look at the past year-- last year, for example-- the very fact that steven spielberg instead of making another jurassic park makes schindler's list in black and white, three hours stretching a little bit the boundaries of tolerance for an audience and what is acceptable material. jonathan demme, who after things like married to the mob makes philadelphia which initially is deemed a very risky project
and then ends up doing quite well and allowing perhaps, again for hollywood to say "you see, there aren't stories that we cannot touch." is this illusory, or is this, in fact part of the greatness of the hollywood scene-- that it keeps expanding its boundaries? i think the word is "healthy." it's a healthy, living organism that eats and devours and mutates and that's good. there's part of all of us at this table that think that the old hollywood dinosaur is a grand old dinosaur and it should be preserved in its own jurassic park and that... there is also part of us who say, "kill the thing off and promote a personal cinema." i don't want to see that dinosaur destroyed. i love that old dinosaur. we only have a few minutes left. are there any concluding perceptions that you would like to offer about the hollywood style especially in relationship
to contemporary american cinema and its future? stillman: there are certain things about the hollywood style in its classic form that can be adapted and used to great effect in the modern day and it's being adapted overseas. there are a lot of people trying to write scripts. they're new in content, but old in form-- new wine in old bottles-- which can be a very good combination. so there can be a good side to the continuance of the hollywood style. i would only say that based on this discussion talking about films can sometimes be as much fun or more than watching them. ( laughter ) insdorf: i guess we're going to see what happens in the next couple of years. i think back to the golden age of hollywood cinema-- the 1930s, the beginning of the '40s-- when indeed hollywood was able to absorb the emigre directors-- in other words, people like lubitsch and billy wilder and hitchcock
each of whom brought to the hollywood style-- using that hollywood style to his own advantage very often-- a new edge, a voice, a distinctiveness sometimes precisely as in the case of the great american john ford by shooting only so much that their vision would remain intact. and i sometimes believe that the best of the independent filmmakers function in a similar way in the 1990s like the emigre directors in the '30s that hollywood, to the extent that it can absorb these voices and visions, these talents not perhaps so much like a cuisinart splicing and dicing them into a homogenous stew but like a melting pot allowing each distinct flavor to somehow contribute so that which is best about the hollywood style and the hollywood system will continue to provide pretty good motion pictures. but like i said, i'm sometimes too much of a pollyanna. i thank all of you for contributing to this discussion today
and let's go watch some movies. toback: the agenda of one's consciousness is created by a lot of people whom one really doesn't even want to have lunch with. silver: that used to only exist when you went out to l.a. and it was one of the reasons why people said "out there, all they talk about is the grosses." [captioned by the caption center wgbh educational foundation] annenberg media ♪ and: with additional funding from these foundations and individuals: